Dear Kaula, Community, and Friends of SHARANYA:
I’m excited to report that, Crafting Puja for Maa: Understanding Ritual & the Devotional Experience in the Sha’can Tradition of Western Shakta Tantra, was chosen for presentation at the American Academy of Religion‘s national conference held from November 7-9, 2009 in Montreal. The presentation was part of the New Religious Movement section within a rich and relatively diverse forum under the theme, The Turn East Revisited: New Religions from Asian Traditions.
Many contributed to my research and I’m deeply grateful for all of your efforts. Thank you! You can view results in SHARANYA’s November newsletter. For your reference, here’s the proposal and abstract:
Through a confluence of feminism, goddess-focused spiritualities, and access to various forms of Hinduism, as well as given a growing Indian-American population with Hindu diasporic roots and bi-cultural sensibilities, a Western Shakta Hindu perspective and related forms of worship and practice are emerging today that assert both authenticity and independence from the Hindu source. One such emergence is the countercultural religious tradition known as Sha’can, a Western Shakta Tantra.
In this paper, I discuss the history of the tradition and examine the ways in which Shakta and Tantric Hindu beliefs and practices have been assimilated, transmitted, or otherwise adopted and incorporated into modes and methods of worship. The question of appropriation will be addressed and evaluated. Other roots or influences within the tradition, such as ecofeminism and Western earth-based spiritualities, will be elucidated, using interview material from Sha’can practitioners of various geographic and demographic backgrounds to do so. In this vein, the paper will also briefly engage the question of if or how Sha’can sits within the recognized Indo-Pagan movement.
Using this as a backdrop for the creation of deeper understanding of the tradition’s emphasis on “the bridging of East and West through (r)evolutionary, embodied spirituality, sadhana (spiritual practice), wisdom teachings, and worship of the Goddess in Her myriad forms,” and especially as Kali Maa, “our beloved Dark Mother…a change agent for our times…helping to transform, empower, and heal individuals, communities, and the planet,” I will then relate my own experience as a leader in the San Francisco-based SHARANYA community where the Sha’can tradition originally evolved, sharing personal experiences of coming to the divine as Maa Kali and how that shaped the formation of the community in 1998.
Given this history and context, the focus of the paper will be demonstration of the evolution of spiritual practice in the tradition, particularly noting how emphasis on personal connection to the Divine is made manifest for both those who lead (whether as primary officiant or inner circle community member) and those who participate in Sha’can pujas (whether as an initiate in the tradition or someone in the extended family of community members). This research will then be juxtaposed with both Shakta Hindu temple puja, and ceremonies conducted for the public by Pagan covens or similar earth-based spiritual organizations. From this, the boundaries of Sha’can ritual will be delineated, offering insight into Shakta Hindu and Western religious sources, as well as innovations of the tradition.
An exploration of how public puja (worship), as a centerpiece of Sha’can’s commitment to engaged spirituality, is performed, when it is performed, by whom, using what symbols, icons, and forms, why it is performed, and noting who/what is invoked as deity will help uncover: i) how participants’ experience is facilitated; and ii) the nature of that experience.
The specific nature of practitioners’ experience will be further studied relative to the bhakti (devotional) path within Hinduism and the religio-cultural norms of the developed West (particularly the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia) in which the vast majority of practitioners reside. This will be done in order to answer the question, “What is the experience of devotees in Sha’can ritual?” I will argue that the answers to this question may help underscore the importance of the tradition as an exciting case study for the development of Hinduism in America with ramifications for the new religious movement.
Hinduism is a source of inspiration in myriad Western spiritual communities, with practitioners offering devotions to Hindu deities on their home altars as readily as they supplicate resurrected and reconstructed divinities from other pantheons. Combine this trend with a confluence of feminism, goddess-focused spiritualities, and a growing Indian-American population that has Hindu diasporic roots and bi-cultural sensibilities, and we witness the birthing of new, culturally relevant and accessible Hinduisms. This paper explores the particulars of ritual and devotion within the countercultural religious tradition known as Sha’can, a Western Shakta Tantra, in order to offer insight into Shakta Hindu and Western sources with the possibility for an exciting case study at the crossroads of East and West that has potential ramifications for the new religious movement.
Rashani Chandranath Alexandre, Ph.D., D.Min.
Founder & Executive Director
SHARANYA / The Maa Batakali Cultural Mission, Inc.
Where East Meets West in Her Name
Visita Inferiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem
~ Yaireva Patanam Dravyaih Siddhih Taireva ~